Here’s how it works: Undeveloped land exists in Nairobi. People begin to use land for run-of-the-mill activities, including walking, selling things, taking naps, and playing soccer. Someone realizes something should be built on the land, whether it’s owned or not. Some sort of fence or barrier is erected around the land. Someone complains. Land deeds disappear. No one official knows anything about how to solve the issue. You enter into Dante’s inferno. Someone with political connections builds something. Connected people make money. The have-nots are left with nothing. We move onto the next thing.
That, more or less, is what happened yet again in Nairobi this week. Except this time, some very proactive school children had other ideas.
When land developers tried to snatch the playground adjacent to their school, students at Nairobi’s Langata Road Primary School decided that enough was enough. Accompanied by other activists, the students began to tear down the wall illegally erected by a then-unknown developer. While the elementary-aged students were protesting, the police intervened. With tear gas.
The day following the incident, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta issued a heartfelt apology:
“I am disappointed at what happened at Langata Road Primary School. Action will be taken against the Ministry of Lands and the National Land Commission officials for failing to address the Langata Road Primary School land issue until it got out of hand resulting to the protest yesterday. Government officials must take their duties seriously. While action will be taken against the police who tear-gassed protesting pupils, the head teacher of the school should also answer questions about the incident. How could he allow young children under his care to behave the way they did? Even when we want to protest, we must do it in a civilized manner and not involve children.”
Perhaps the apology was sincere, perhaps it wasn’t. I mean, this is the same president who, until recently, was on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his alleged participation in engineering Kenya’s 2007 election violence, which left over 1,000 civilians dead and 600,000 people displaced. Unsurprisingly, his administration, while claiming to cooperate with the ICC investigation, undercut the process at every conceivable opportunity. Prosecution witnesses died, other key witnesses changed their stories. My point: his sincere denials and apologies aren’t exactly unimpeachable.
Kenyatta’s apology was followed by a parade of officials. Kenya’s acting interior minister showed up at the school to apologize. Then the Kenyan Land Ministry’s chief surveyor showed up with bulldozers, telling the media that they were there to mark the school’s real boundary, which he claimed included the fenced-in land. Turns out, the bulldozers were brought to flatten the ground to give the kids a new soccer field!
At least that’s the official line.
Within a matter of days of the tear-gassing, countless government officials had descended on the school. Counseling was promised. Construction on a new, all-weather playground started. The action was baffling because trying to get a land issue solved in Kenya — or most things requiring government action — without some under-the-table action or being very important is generally a nightmare. The speed at which the Kenyan government moved to clean up this mess was almost as suspicious as the government’s hesitation in naming those behind the attempted land grab.
But it isn’t all sad, cynical news. There’s a lesson here, especially for soccer fans and players: If you want to accelerate government action and get a new soccer field, get children tear-gassed in front of cameras. You might even get to meet a few politicians who’d otherwise never think of visiting you.
Sidenote: I think I just figured out how to fix that 2015 Women’s World Cup turf issue.